By Kevin Sweeney
2017-18 in the MAC was defined by its big wins. Ball State’s buzzer-beating victory over then-#7 Notre Dame earned all the early headlines, and Buffalo’s thumping of Arizona in the NCAA Tournament might have been the story of opening weekend if not for what UMBC did the following night. In between those upsets was a ton of competitive basketball, and a lot of the talent that made the league as fun to watch as it was comes back for one more go.
I think there’s a legitimate case for Buffalo to be in preseason top 25’s. Nate Oats’ team is that good. 3 all-league-level players return from last season’s 27-win club, with wings CJ Massinburg & Jeremy Harris complimenting bruising big Nick Perkins for one of the nation’s strongest cores. The Bulls lose point guard Wes Clark, but have a deep unit of ball-handlers waiting in the wings to take over and add a top-150 recruit on the wing in Jeenathan Williams. UB has everything–length, athleticism, experience, scoring ability, and coaching– that I look for in a Cinderella team, and they should be considered must-see TV this season.
#2. Ball State
The aforementioned win over Notre Dame was massive for James Whitford’s program, but the Cardinals were unable to find consistency on the offensive end for much of MAC play last season. Outside shooting was a struggle, and BSU lost the turnover battle most of the time. Those challenges were somewhat due to roster makeup– playing 2 non-shooting bigs in Tahjai Teague & Trey Moses and a scoring point guard in Tayler Persons isn’t good for spacing or turnover margin. That core returns, and Whitford hopes to push the right buttons with some new faces to work into the rotation. CCSU transfer Austin Nehls provides a solid catch-and-shoot guy off the bench, while Mizzou import KJ Walton provides more athleticism in the backcourt. The x-factor might be Arkansas transfer Brachen Hazen, who has an intriguing skillset at 6-8 at the mid-major level.
#3. Eastern Michigan
EMU virtually runs it back from last season, with a senior trio of James Thompson IV, Elijah Minnie, and Paul Jackson talented enough to keep the Eagles in any game. The only departure is Tim Bond, a swiss army knife wing who was sneaky valuable in the EMU zone. It’s hard to see much improvement from any of the aforementioned big 3, so significant improvement relies upon their newcomers. Andre Rafus is the headliner of that group, a former blue-chip recruit who bounced around high schools and somehow wound up available in the June after his prep year. Rafus has undeniable upside– a 6-9 high-major athlete who can shoot the ball, but something obviously made other programs hold back.
A strong core returns from a team that was Buffalo’s most legitimate challenger in the MAC last season, but Tod Kowalczyk will have to find a way to win without stud wing Tre’Shaun Fletcher. Fletcher came in as a sit 1, play 1 transfer and revolutionized the Rockets offense, playing as a 6-7 lead guard who could switch 1-4. Kowalczyk will likely turn to another transfer to take over ball-handling duties in Tennessee transfer Chris Darrington, who struggled to carve out minutes on a top-10 team but was one of the nation’s elite JUCO players in 2016-17. Darrington is a very different player than Fletcher, but has the upside to keep what was one of the nation’s best offenses running smoothly.
#5. Kent State
Rob Senderoff’s team is loaded in the backcourt, with a trio of high-impact newcomers in top-100 JUCO prospects CJ Williamson & Antonio Williams along with Tulane transfer Kain Harris joining Jalen Avery and Jaylin Walker to create a formidable 5-man rotation. The frontcourt has some questions to answer without Adonis De La Rosa (Illinois), with Danny Pippen and USC Upstate transfer Phillip Whittington the likely pairing to open the year. Sophomore BJ Duling is a high-level athlete and potential breakout candidate up front, and could carve out a starting spot at the 4, perhaps pairing with Pippen in some dangerous 5-out lineups.
It was a down 2017-18 for a Bobcat program that has been as consistent as any mid-major since the turn of the millennium, finishing under .500 for just the second time since 2009. Much of Ohio’s demise was due to Jason Carter missing the season with an injury– Carter had been projected as one of the league’s breakout stars and possesses significant upside as a high-scoring big man. The one bright spot of a down campaign was Teyvion Kirk’s emergence, as the freshman became just the 9th player since 1992 to average at least 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists as a freshman, per Sports Reference. When you consider that 3 of those 9 are Ben Simmons, Chauncey Billups, and Caron Butler, that’s excellent company to be in. He’ll have to take care of the ball better, but Kirk is a foundational piece for Saul Phillips’ program and I’m excited to see what he can do in year 2.
#7. Bowling Green
There should be plenty of reason for optimism with this BGSU club, returning a trio of double-figure scorers from a young team that wasn’t far off last season. The Falcons lost a ton of close games, thanks in no small part to a weak defense and youth in the backcourt. However, that young group took some necessary lumps and could take some nice steps forward this season. Sophomore Justin Turner returns after an explosive freshman season, and double-double machine Demajeo Wiggins should be the benefit of excellent floor-spacing in his senior season. This team could definitely win 20 games.
#8. Central Michigan
CMU’s 21-win 2017-18 season was a bit deceptive, as the Chippewas only won 5 games against teams that finished above .500 (and two of those came in the CIT). But Keno Davis’ club brings a lot back and adds more backcourt reinforcements that should once again keep them interesting in the MAC. Vanderbilt grad transfer Larry Austin will look to finally live up to his lofty recruiting ranking in Davis’ guard-friendly system, forming a formidable duo with Shawn Roundtree. That pairing might not be quite as good as the Marcus Keene/Braylon Rayson pairing that lit the conference on fire in 2016-17, but it’s definitely dangerous, and this year’s group has a better supporting cast. Defense will always be a concern under Davis, but the Chippewas will be fun to watch at the very least.
Early departures from Virshon Cotton (LIU Brookyln) and Eric Parrish (JUCO) take a little bit of wind out of the Zips’ collective sails, with a trio of transfers likely to be relied upon heavily for this team’s success. Daniel Utomi and Jimond Ivey feel like sure things at this point, but that duo isn’t enough to make much headway by themselves. Eric Hester has the most upside of that transfer trio, a former top-150 recruit who can play either guard spot and bring lots of athleticism to the table. (NOTE: Hester is no longer listed on Akron’s roster, so it’s unclear whether he’ll play this season. However, both Loren Jackson (LBSU) and Deng Riak (ECU) profile as at least solid rotation players in the MAC, giving John Groce more options at his disposal than he had last season. A year 2 jump for Groce’s club wouldn’t surprise me, but it’s hard to pick them any higher than this given the teams above them.
#10. Miami (OH)
Jack Owens did a tremendous job in his first year at Miami, bringing in a foundational piece in Nike Sibande (an all-name honoree as well) and almost finishing .500 despite losing 2 studs in the Weathers twins to transfer from the previous regime. I was ready to go all-in on this team to make another jump in the MAC when high-level point guard Darrian Ringo was dismissed from the team this summer. Given he averaged almost 7 assists per game and no one else on the roster averaged more than 1.9, that’s a crushing blow. Solving that point guard puzzle will be the biggest challenge for Owens. Look for Isaiah Coleman-Lands to get the nod early on, but freshman Mekhi Lairy possesses significant upside at that spot as well and could factor into the lead guard mix as the season rolls on.
UPDATE: Ringo returned to the team before the start of the season, which makes me significantly higher than 10th. I see them in the 6-8 range.
#11. Northern Illinois
In case you were wondering, Mark Montgomery isn’t getting the Michigan State head coaching job when Tom Izzo retires. Not if he keeps finishing under .500 at Northern Illinois like he did last season. His NIU club brings back a lot of talent from last season’s disappointing 13-19 finish, including scoring guard Eugene German and two other double-digit scorers. His club relied almost entirely on isolation and shot fewer threes than any team in the conference, and that conference left the Huskies with a fairly ineffective offense to pair with a poor defense. Despite those deep flaws, NIU still found a way to beat Buffalo, EMU, and Ball State last season. I’d bet on Montgomery’s club winning some games they shouldn’t again this season, but wouldn’t count on much more than that from this club.
#12. Western Michigan
While this roster doesn’t look like a last-place team on paper, the depth of the MAC makes a fall to 12th possible for the Broncos. Losing explosive lead guard Thomas Wilder leaves a major hole from a creation perspective, and the early transfer of Reggie Jones was an unexpected blow to this group. WMU has a chance to have an intriguing wing rotation with newcomers Patrick Emilien and Kawanise Williams joining the multi-positional Josh Davis in a rotation that would be very athletic and switchable.
All-Conference First Team:
- Tayler Persons– Ball State (15.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 4.3 apg, .461/.373/.670)
- CJ Massinburg– Buffalo (17.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.4 apg, .468/.405/.743)
- Jeremy Harris– Buffalo (15.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.1 apg, .471/.418/.787)
- Nick Perkins– Buffalo (16.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 0.8 apg, .474/.319/.733)
- James Thompson IV– Eastern Michigan (14.5 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 0.3 apg, .672/.000/.607)
Player of the Year: CJ Massinburg (Buffalo)
Massinburg is one of my favorite players in college basketball. To see an unheralded recruit get progressively better each season and lead his program to the NCAA Tournament is always fun, and Massinburg has a chance to cement his legacy as one of the greatest to ever play at Buffalo this season. 2,000 career points is a possibility, as is a deep NCAA Tournament run to cap a stellar career.
Breakout Player: BJ Duling (Kent State)
Duling possesses significant upside in his sturdy 6-7 frame, and has a chance to break out for a Kent State looking for answers in the frontcourt. Like many freshmen, Duling battled inconsistency last season but showed plenty of promise, and I expect a big year from him.
Newcomer of the Year: Chris Darrington (Toledo)
I’m buying Darrington as a sneaky mid-major star this season. He’s an elite shooter and shot-maker who can thrive with or without the ball, making him an outstanding fit in Tod Kowalczyk’s system. He can make this Toledo team a MAC contender once again.